April Holmes prayed every day on her way to her corporate job in Philadelphia. She prayed that God would guide her toward a different career. She prayed for one that would let her to travel often and encounter new people.
In 2001, after leaving her office one day, she raced to a train station during rush hour; she was bound for New York City, where she planned to meet her boyfriend.
She never made it.
As she was boarding, the train started to pull forward, but the doors never shut. Holmes slipped, tumbling below the platform. The train rolled onto her left leg. For 17 minutes, Holmes lay trapped beneath the train, singing gospel songs to keep her heart beating and her body from giving up.
In the ambulance, Holmes was certain her mind was playing tricks on her. She was certain the pain medication was clouding her senses. But she couldn’t ignore the words one paramedic uttered to another.
“Did you get her leg?”
The former Norfolk State track and field student-athlete had lost that leg below the knee. She would spend nine months in the hospital recovering and rehabilitating. Despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, she learned to walk again. Then she learned to run again. Then she went on to flourish as a Paralympian, motivational speaker and writer. Through a gruesome twist of fate, her prayers had been answered.
Holmes had to forge her own trail through her recovery, but she has dedicated her life to being a guide for others who face similar challenges. For that, Holmes will be honored with the 2015 Inspiration Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration in January. The award is presented during the NCAA Convention to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter winner at an NCAA institution. It is reserved for people who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome their trauma and, most importantly, are role models giving hope and inspiration to others in similar situations.
“I never went through a period of wondering ‘why me,’” said Holmes. “If I hadn’t learned early in athletics how to persevere, had I not been an athlete, I’m not sure I would have made it.”
Holmes had been an athlete since she was five years old, when her uncle started the Camden City Track Club in New Jersey. Initially, her mother wanted her to participate in athletics so she would stay out of trouble. Holmes excelled on the track and her mother made clear that, although the family couldn’t afford it, she expected her daughter to earn a college degree. Holmes’ mother suggested that track and field might propel her there. It did – she landed a scholarship at Norfolk State University, where she specialized in the 400 meters.
Five years after finishing her successful running career at Norfolk State, she woke up in a Philadelphia hospital swaddled in both a neck brace and unspeakable pain. She looked at her cousin, who was by her bedside with her mother, and asked what had happened to her leg.
“You’ll be fine,” is all her cousin could muster.
But she wasn’t fine. Her leg was gone. Sports – specifically track and field and basketball –had long played a crucial role in Holmes’ life, and losing her leg felt like losing her identity. The thought of not being able to run or play pickup basketball again was crushing.
One day, though, as she was recovering in the hospital, Holmes’ doctor brought her a magazine about the Paralympics. Holmes had never heard of the event before perusing those pages, but she set three goals for herself after she finished reading: to represent the United States at the next Paralympic Games, to be the fastest amputee in the world and to win a gold medal.
Holmes achieved each of those goals – many times over. To date, she has competed and medaled in three Paralympic Games: a bronze medal in the long jump in Athens (2004), a gold medal in the 100 meters in Beijing (2008) and a bronze medal in the 100 meters in London (2012). Holmes is currently training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She has broken International Paralympic Committee world records fourteen times and American records eighteen times in the 100, 200 and 400 meters as well as the long jump.
“I’ve had a very successful career, and it just keeps getting more rewarding because it’s no longer about me,” Holmes said. “It’s about the people around me who I can motivate to be great in their own lives, people who I can inspire to overcome obstacles and succeed.”
Even with all of her successes, including being the first female and first amputee to be signed by Nike’s Jordan brand, Holmes is dedicated first to having a positive impact on others. In addition to her training, she works as a motivational speaker, inspiring others – including a young teenager who had recently had her own leg amputated – to continue to strive for more. She also works with First Lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move!” campaign, and has written a book about her journey.
“I used to pray for the opportunity to have a career that allowed me to travel and meet new people,” Holmes said. “I didn’t specify that I needed all ten of my toes to do it.”